Sunday, 26 June, 2022

The rurban mind

Increasingly, numbers & political clout is moving from villages to cities. Being more exposed to media, cities are influencing political agenda more than politicians understand.

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Ever since the Karnataka defeat, the Congress party’s closet-coterie Rajya Sabha warriors have been inventing new excuses. One of these is the delimitation of constituencies. The Congress party’s formidable backseat drivers — most of whom congregate in New Delhi at the CWC meet today to debate familiar excuses and blame the usual suspects for Karnataka — would like you to believe that one reason they lost out was that after the delimitation the urban constituencies have increased. And the cities, we all know, prefer the BJP.

Of all the alibis, this is the only one with some justification. Yet, such is the level of intellectual bankruptcy and organisational lethargy in the Congress today, that they have grabbed the wrong end of that logic. Delimitation is not some monstrosity wrought upon them by a vicious Election Commission. It is an acknowledgement of the new demographic reality in a rapidly urbanising India. It is now entirely up to a political party to decide whether it embraces it as an opportunity, or rubbishes it as a curse. But urbanisation, the movement of populations from villages to cities as well as the social, economic and infrastructural upgrade of the villages, is an irresistible force. A party, particularly a mainstream one, that does not embrace this reality is headed for disaster. In fact, the real impact of this urbanisation is even more than the 10 percentage points increase in constituencies the delimitation commission has given to the urban areas.

But, for some reason, the Congress geriatrics are shy of accepting this reality. That is why their politics and rhetoric are still so rural-centric, as if cities do not matter. Or rather that cities are somehow bad, immoral, rolling in cash and essentially anti-secular, and therefore deservingly ceded to the BJP.

This was also the Congress argument during last year’s Gujarat campaign: don’t get dazzled by Modi. His impact is confined to the cities. Villages will reject him. In fact, even a politician as experienced as Sharad Pawar had fallen prey to that same stereotype as he told me in Gondal, one of the few seats his NCP was contesting in Gujarat: “Modi will lose. Cities will vote for him, but villages are fed up.” Any analysis of that election shows that Modi’s support was uniformly spread among cities and villages in each political geography of Gujarat. So what will the Congress Kautilyas say now: that Gujarat is such a communalised state. Its case is sui generis.

Also read: India is more urban than politicians know

Gujarat is a unique case not only because its mind is “Modi-fied” but also because it is the most urbanised of our larger states. For nearly a decade and a half the state has built roads, power and education infrastructure, upgraded its irrigation and agriculture and thereby narrowed the gap between its many, and booming, cities and villages. Gujarat, for all practical purposes, is now a state that can be more aptly described as “rurban”. Which is why the old Congress belief of “villages are with us and so are the numbers” is now a fantasy. The trend has been further confirmed in Punjab where for decades the Congress had the cities and Akalis, the villages. In the latest elections, the Akalis swept the cities. And, last heard, even the veteran comrades of the West Bengal CPM whose rural support has been the stuff of legend, were trying to figure out why villages gave them such a shelling in this month’s Panchayat polls.

Increasingly now, numbers as well as political clout is moving from villages to cities. In any case, being more exposed to the media and other elements of change, the cities are influencing the political agenda much more than most politicians understand. Karnataka was no different. The BJP has done well in the cities as well as in the villages. And if it has won such an unexpectedly large number of Scheduled Caste and Tribe seats, it is not because their innocent minds have been communalised. It is because more and more villages are now thinking like cities. Or, more accurately, this is because cities and villages are increasingly thinking alike, because India’s political landscape is also being “rurbanised”.

The national party that acknowledges this least of all is the Congress. Its old philosophy has a deeply ingrained anti-urban bias. You can understand it if leaders like Lalu or Mulayam with geographically and demographically limited appeal talk in terms of city versus village. Their alienation with cities is easy to understand as urban areas breed an anonymity of caste, language and ethnicity — cities are by definition much too diverse to support their kind of narrow vote bank politics. But the Congress would have to be silly in the extreme to stick to that rhetoric.

Almost all its leaders have attributed their 2004 victory to Bharat’s revolt against BJP’s India. One look at the figures would trash that. The BJP, in fact, retained a majority of its rural seats, but was wiped out in the cities. Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, were all swept by the Congress or the allies. In terms of hard figures, Yogendra Yadav points out (‘The elusive mandate of 2004′, Economic and Political Weekly, December 18, 2004) that while the NDA’s urban seats fell from 51 in 1999 to a mere 21, UPA’s went up from 16 to 35. This is what made the difference in May 2004, a revolt of the cities against the NDA, and not villages, as the Congress persuaded itself to believe.

Because of this confusion, instead of sending out thank-you cards to city folks, the Congress fell back on its old rural rhetoric. It was probably the weight of history and legacy or most likely sheer laziness that so blocked the Congress leaders’ minds that they went back to the old political discourse.

Also read: India’s urban and rural poor expect different things from their local govts, and why it matters

This has subsequently reflected in its actions as well, and in its desperation to find favour for its rural schemes it has strangled the urban voter with a panoply of new taxes and cesses on goods, services, and most importantly salaries.

Then to squeeze out liquidity to contain headline inflation, it has brutally increased interest rates. Most ordinary folks in cities, most of them not at all rich but low/lower middle class, are now paying up to 500 basis points more even on small loans for two-wheelers and essential white goods and for their children’s education. They curse the UPA every month as they pay their increased EMI. It’s only a party that refuses to understand this new sociology of Indian politics that overlooks the killer impact of EMI inflation on its voters. It is these follies that have lost it so many elections since 2004. This raises two more important points.

One, if the argument is that the Congress has punished the urban voter while pretending to favour his rural counterpart, how come it has not been rewarded in the countryside? The answer is simple. In this rapidly developing (read urbanising) India the rural-urban divide is blurring, even in voting behaviour.

Two, why did the cities vote then the way they did? For example, why did they vote UPA so overwhelmingly if you thought — and rightly so in the past — that the BJP had its support in the cities? Could it just be that the cities were just so fed up of the Murli Manohar Joshi kind of meddling with education that they value so much, or the sanctification of state-sponsored violence in Modi’s Gujarat that they turned against the BJP?

And why are the same cities again switching preferences? Could it be because cities are chaotic, impersonal, insensitive, callous, cynical, frenetic, neurotic and all such awful things, but they are also the dissolvers of identity and thereby identity politics. And they are growing vertically and horizontally, into suburbs and taking into their widening embrace villages, as highways open up the countryside. The party that understands this closing of the gap between the urban and the rural mind will rule this new India.

Also read: India’s urbanisation isn’t just happening in cities. Modi govt must tap these new areas


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